Hiking Endeavour

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that a constant theme of mine is how important, and popular, this region of Mars will be in years to come, specifically once Mars is settled/colonised/whatever you want to call it. And I know, that might be a little premature, because let’s face it, the prospects of anyone even GOING to Mars in the next few decades are distressingly bad, but at some point people will go, and more people will follow, and eventually, somewhere down the river of Time, there will be a large population on Mars, and a constant flow of visitors too, and the places on Mars explored by the space probes of *our* time will draw people to them, as historic sites and tourist attractions.

That’s not too big a leap, is it? After all, here on good old Terra we flock in our millions to historic sites such as the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Plymouth Rock and many more. In a couple of centuries, surely the people of Mars will attach just as much historical importance to the Viking landing sites, the site of the first manned landing, and the final resting places of the Polar Lander and Beagle 2, if they’re ever found…

And I have every confidence, in fact I’m 1000% certain, that while shuttles and pressuried rovers will carry groups of people out to the sites speedily and in comfort, just as tourist buses ferry groups to and from the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley and the Lake District today, large numbers of hardier, less pampered native martians and visitors to the Red Planet will be drawn to both Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum, to follow the routes of the Mars Exploration Rovers the hard way, on foot, and, following in their long-faded wheel tracks, walk “The Spirit Trail” and “The Opportunity Trail”.

As I say, I’ve no doubt about that, but how long would it take them?

I decided to try and work it out.

Now, what follows is, as I always stress here, JUST A BIT OF FUN, ok? I’m not claiming 100% accuracy here, it’s just for my own – and hopefully your! – amusement. Don’t take it too seriously, ok? 🙂

So.. how to start… Well, when I’m not writing about Mars, looking at pictures of Mars, or giving talks about Mars, I’m a keen amateur astronomer, the Secretary of my town’s astronomical society, and my “observatory” is the top of Castle Hill, a small hill in the center of Kendal on top of which are the rather beautiful (I think) ruins of Kendal Castle. That’s where I go to observe the night sky from. That’s where I go to watch Moonrises and sunsets, photograph planetary conjunctions and alignments, and where I’ll be spending many long nights over the summer, hoping to see, and photograph, displays of noctilucent clouds (see my “Cumbrian Sky” blog for info on those). I like to go up there because it’s above the bright lights of Kendal, has an almost 360 degree view of the sky, and the Castle itself provides a dramatic and beautiful backdrop for my astrophotographs. It’s also close to my home. To get there I literally just walk through the park, cross the river (by bridge, I’m not some kind of astronomical Indiana Jones) and trek up a steep hill track and, around 0.9km later, there I am. When laden down with all my observing gear – my telescope (which I carry in two sports bags), binoculars and my camera and tripod – that trip usually takes me about 15 minutes, a little longer if I’ve got my trusty pop-up tent slung over my back too…

So, using that as my benchmark, and figuring that people hiking across Meridiani in the future will be equally laden-down, but with spacesuits, cameras, food etc (not a great comparison, I know, I said this was just for fun, ok?!), how long would it take people to walk between the places Oppy has visited during her epic journey? How long would it take to Hike Endeavour?

Let’s have a look… 🙂

Ok, first, let’s look at the Big Picture. Let’s go forwards in time to the year 2252. Mars is now populated, with several large settlements on its surface, and more people arriving every year. You’re a native martian, and you’ve finally managed to arrange some time off work to achieve your ambition of following “The Opportunity Trail”. If you want to “do” ‘The Opportunity Trail’ properly, fully, you need to start off at Eagle Crater, Opportunity’s landing site. That’s where you’ll find the “Opportunity Landing Site Visitor Centre”, built in a ring around the crater itself, with views down into the crater (I say “down”, but it’s not very deep, so the Museum’s observation windows are on the second floor to allow visitors to look down into Eagle and see the full scale replica of Opportunity’s landing stage and the rover itself, parked in front of that shelf of pale, crumbly bedrock, studying ‘El Capitan’). After looking around the Centre, and buying your souvenirs at the gift shop,  you will obviously want to head south, towards Victoria Crater and, beyond that, Endeavour Crater. At this point you’ll be able to choose between the “Direct Route” – following straight lines between the major craters – or the “Faithful Route”, which literally takes you on a meandering journey to every crater, every ridge and every boulder visited and studied by Opportunity. That’s for the real obsessives and enthusiasts, typically rich tourists or historians visiting from Earth who can afford the time and money such a long expedition demands. Hard-working martians usually opt for the “Direct Route”, so let’s go with that.

Based on my weighed-down-by-Stuff walking pace between my home and Kendal Castle – which is much slower than the ‘average walking speed’ of 6km/hr I found quoted on many sites online, whuich I’m guessing assumes the walked is not burdened by bags, hills and tracks, and is just walking in a straight line, naked, without anyone else getting in the way! – here’s what it would take you to get from Eagle Crater to Endeavour, taking in Victoria Crater along the way…

Of course if you made that trek in real life, you’d take a LOT longer than that because naturally you’d want to stop at Victoria and walk around it, slowly, drinking in the view from each Cape and cliff, photographing the view from every angle, and gazing in admiration and wonder at the sight of the full size, faithful replica of Oppy standing in the jagged shadow of Cape Verde, placed there by Mars Heritage…

But however long it took you, after leaving Victoria you’d carry on towards Endeavour, walking slowly across the great Meridiani desert, watching the hills of Endeavour’s rim growing steadily larger on the horizon aheadof you, just like Oppy saw them growing as she drove towards the great crater. Eventually you’d arrive at Spirit Point, and walk up onto Cape York, the historic site of Oppy’s landfall at Endeavour Crater, all those decades before.

How big is Cape York? Well, not that big. In fact, if you wanted to walk it, from end to end, it wouldn’t take you long at all…

And here’s an amazing thing for me, personally, which I’ve mentioned before but feel happy repeating. It turns out that Cape York is pretty close – spookily close, in fact – in size to Castle Hill, the hill on which Kendal Castle stands, so I can (in my mind, at least!) ‘walk Cape York’ myself whenever I want to…

Of course, Oppy herself hasn’t driven from one end of Cape York to the other… yet… She’s currently studying some dust dunes up near the northern end of the Cape, an area christened “North Pole” by the rover team. After finishing off there, she’ll head downhill, back down to the flat ‘bench’ which surrounds the Cape, and search for more Homestake-like veins of gypsum.

And then? Onwards, possibly…hopefully…to “Whim Creek”, the notch cut out of the Cape’s NE edge. If you were going to do that, if you were going to walk it, how long would it take?

Well…

Although it might look quite a way on the photos being sent back by Oppy, Whim Creek isn’t really far at all from North Pole…

So, if you were standing beside Oppy right now, and left here there to do her work on the dust at her feet, you could be down the hill and standing beside Whim Creek in just a couple of minutes..!

But what about the next major leg of the journey? As we know, current plans are for Oppy to drive back down the eastern side of Cape York then, after crossing “Botany Bay” – the flatter expanse between the southern end of Cape York and the smaller ‘island’ of “Nobby’s Head” (no, really, that’s its name) – head for the curving range of high hills to the Cape’s south, which mark the south west rim of Endeavour. How long would it take to walk from Whim Creek to “Solander Point”, the closest part of those hills..?

Well…

Wow… just over forty minutes… that brings home just how small an area of Mars Oppy is exploring, doesn’t it? If I was to set off on that walk from my home here in Kendal, it would take me *this* far…

This has caught me out SO many times during the mission. I’ve looked at photos sent back by Opportunity, showing what looked like a really large ledge, or ridge, or expanse of dust dunes in the distance, and thought “It’ll take AGES to get there!” only for Oppy to get there in a single 20 or 30m  drive. Or I’ve made, in my imagination, an image of Oppy standing next to a ridge or ledge, or rock, and thought “That must be HUGE!” only for my friend Mike Howard, from UMSF, to post a picture from his fantastic Midnight Martian Browser software, showing a virtual Oppy alongside it, revealing it to be *tiny*! Very disorienting and disconcerting.

Anyway, there you go, that will give you a basic idea of how long it would take you to walk around this part of Mars, Opportunity’s geological hunting ground for the past eight years. As I said, I am absolutely convinced people will do that for real one day. I can imagine families following “The Opportunity Trail” for a vacation, walking together across Meridiani, having their photos taken at all the historic and famous landmarks along the way. But there’d be so much to do at Victoria, after walking from Eagle, that they’d need an overnight stop there: no point walking from Eagle to Victoria and then just keeping going, not when there’s so much to see, so much history to be immersed in, at Victoria. Some – the younger, hardier, more adventurous ones – might camp nearby, using small inflatable habs brought with them, but that won’t suit everyone, especially not families with children, so it’s not too hard to imagine a small settlement springing up close to the crater, offering “Trailers” a place to stop for the night, have something to eat, freshen up etc.

There’d have to be a shop, of course, selling the obligatory souvenir holograms, models and soft toys, stuff like that. And at least a few martians would set themselves up in the settlement as Tour Guides, wouldn’t you think? Offering their services to Trailers, taking them to the crater and walking them around it, stopping at the same Capes and bays Oppy stopped at, describing what Oppy did and saw there? For a little extra they may even offer downloads of special (and not entirely official or legal) software which would project a 3D, virtual Oppy onto the head up display screens of the Trailers’ helmets, allowing them to literally walk alongside Oppy as she approached and then drove around and into the crater? Hmmm, I like that idea.. 🙂

But that’s for the future – the far future. For now, Oppy is on her own at Endeavour, exploring it on our behalf. I think it’s fair to say that the mainstream media forgot about Opportunity a long time ago, bored with the steady stream of pictures showing rocks, rocks and more rocks, and now she only makes the headlines, briefly, when she reaches a mission milestone, or the MER team publish a paper in Science. And as Curiosity closes in on Mars, getting a little closer to Barsoom each day, I’m sure the media spotlight – and even NASA’s own attention – will swing towards it totally, and focus on its mission to explore Gale Crater, leaving Opportunity even more ignored than she is now, if that’s possible. And assuming Curiosity lands safely, and drives towards the mountain in the centre of Gale, beginning her possibly decade-long mission, carrying out new science, seeing new horizons, unlocking new secrets, there’s a very real chance that Opportunity will be forgotten, left to wander around the edge of Endeavour Crater alone and forlorn, like R2D2 wandering the canyons of Tatooine…

But not by this blog.

Even if Curiosity lands in the middle of a bloody martian dinosaur graveyard, and crunches across Sun-bleached bones as she drives to her mountain goal, Road to Endeavour will continue to chronicle Opportunity’s epic adventure, sharing with you the pictures she takes and the science she carries out. For while Oppy has already crossed a vast desert, braved Sun-obscuring dust storms and survived many long martian winters, I have a feeling that her best days lay ahead of her and her finset hour is yet to come. Whenever I look at Cape Tribulation, I get a tingling feeling. Up there, I think, on the boulder-scatered, wind-etched slopes of Tribulation, Opportunity’s fate and destiny await. IF she can get up there, to look down on Endeavour, I think she’ll do us proud, and force the media to swing that spotlight away from Curiosity and back onto her again. I don’t know that for sure, of course, but I believe it. I feel it. Opportunity didn’t come all this way just to trundle about Cape York looking for and crunching over gypsum veins, she came to look for, and find, clays. Cape York seems to have none, none in any quantity anyway. But up on Tribulation, maybe Opportunity will have better luck. We’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, just remember for a moment how amazing, how magical it is that Opportunity – which they hoped would last 90 days after she landed – is still there, on Mars, at the northern end of Cape York, eight years after she arrived. She’s studying beautiful dunes of ancient martian dust, blown there by whisper-soft martian winds over thousands if not millions of years, on the edge of an enormous  wound blasted out of the Red Planet’s crust by the impact of an asteroid billions of years ago. A little robot, caked in dust, built by us, is exploring Mars, driving from place to place, sending back stunning pictures of its alien rocks, mountains and skies. Hiking Endeavour on our behalf.

Come back soon, ok? 🙂

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2 Responses to Hiking Endeavour

  1. Dan Brennan says:

    Fantastic Stu, however there are a few other items on the Opportunity Trail worth mentioning. If you bring children with you on your hike they’ll want to go through the tradition of stopping at Purgatory Dune, laying down in the sand and waving their arms and legs to make a Martian Sand Angel. The tall pole with the box on top standing over among the Rub al Khali Dunes creates a hologram video of the child’s efforts which will be ready for purchase at the Eagle Visitors Center by the time you get back. It’s also a good idea to find one of the benches overlooking Victoria Crater to shake the sand from your shoes before continuing on.

  2. starbuck5250 says:

    Love – LOVE – how you think!

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